To be human is to err. Why is it, then, that leaders insist on pretending they’re perfect in front of their teams?
People don’t want work-fueled robots guiding their companies. They would much rather work for skilled, empathetic leaders who feel passionately about their missions, make honest mistakes and learn along the way.
As the newest generation to join the workforce, Generation Z values authenticity in leadership. MNI Targeted Media recently conducted a survey about what members of Gen Z prioritize. The study found that Gen Z consumers value open-mindedness, inclusivity and authenticity above other factors when choosing where to do business — both personally and professionally.
The consequences of an inauthentic approach to leadership can be severe. Employees who don’t view their leaders as authentic are less engaged at work, which correlates with increased turnover and lower profitability, per Gallup. Larger paychecks and better benefits won’t make employees stick around. To retain top talent, leaders must become the authentic guides that top talent deserves.
My career in the Navy and my tenure as CEO of Ridgeline Partners have given me a front-row seat to the evolution of authentic leadership. Embracing these fundamental principles will help develop the authentic leadership style your employees need:
1. Let them grow, even if they grow elsewhere.
When Robert Half and Enactus studied Generation Z, they found that 38 percent of respondents prioritized honesty and integrity above all else in a boss. However, “mentoring ability” came in second at 21 percent. Workers today don’t just want to work for straight shooters: They want to learn from people who are willing to help them grow.
Many times, that growth occurs entirely within the context of the company. A leader who helps an employee learn to be a better SaaS marketer has a strong chance of keeping that employee over the long haul. Some employees aspire to grow in directions that don’t match the company’s current vision for the future. However, what they bring to the table is no less valuable and will contribute to the broader skills and culture of the company. Truly authentic leaders assist in that development, too, even if it means an employee will eventually leave.
Why invest in someone who won’t stick around? By mentoring all employees and helping them achieve their personal dreams, even when those dreams take them away from the business, leaders show the rest of the team that they’re committed to doing the right thing. A leader who only mentors people for his or her own benefit lacks the authentic character the modern workforce requires.
For every employee who outgrows the company and leaves, several others will see how well that employee was treated and stay. As a bonus, the people who leave will tell others how well they were treated, inspiring more top talent to seek employment under that authentic and helpful leader.
2. Don’t promote risks while punishing failure.
Nothing irks a talented employee like a reprimand for trying something new. As Steve Jobs said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Most companies today claim to prioritize innovation, but in practice, few companies openly accept the trial and error that comes with the process. Leaders can tell employees to be creative, but when those same leaders punish people for failure (even indirectly), employees pick up on the hypocrisy and quit trying to change the status quo. The more stifled employees feel, the more likely they are to quit entirely.
Never hold an honest effort against an employee, even when that effort cost the company money and time. This is especially true when giving workers opportunities to tackle new projects. If people who tried and failed in the past don’t get more opportunities to be creative, they’ll read between the lines and recognize that their leaders don’t actually want them to try new things.
This means creating a culture that can experiment and learn from failure by reserving a portion of the budget for innovation practice. Let workers flex their creative muscles without fear of reprimand. When people feel free to explore, they’re more likely to discover helpful new insights — and more likely to stick with the leaders who believed in them. At Ridgeline Partners, we create pilot programs for the exact purpose of experimenting beyond our existing constructs and allowing employees to innovate in a practical sense.
3. Listen to criticism, provide feedback and make changes when necessary.
Employees know their bosses aren’t perfect, and they want to help. When workers provide thoughtful and constructive feedback about what the company or a direct supervisor could do better, don’t take it personally or sweep it under the rug. It’s not meant to be personal, so don’t take it that way. Instead, address the issue head-on with useful solutions. This is an example of embracing professional growth, and it shows employees that their opinions are valuable.
Solicit feedback through private channels so employees don’t feel the pressure of their peers watching them. If the feedback is accurate, act on it. If it doesn’t feel accurate or fair, ask the employee to clarify the comments without fear of retribution. Leaders who let employees challenge the status quo demonstrate to their teams that they understand their personal limitations and want to grow alongside their teams.
Give employees the feedback they crave, too. Authentic leaders should be just as good at giving as they are receiving. “When you don’t have that feedback, especially in your first two years on a job, you’re kind of guessing at what your goals should be,” says Claire Bissot at CBIZ.
Don’t wait until annual review periods to talk to employees about how they’re doing. Schedule weekly check-ins with all direct reports, and don’t be shy about calling up an employee to talk in between meetings. The more frequent the communication, the more personal the relationship becomes and the more likely employees are to share meaningful feedback.
Authenticity in leadership is the difference between disgruntled short-term employees and committed long-term employees. Employees look to their leaders as representations of their companies. Give employees the authentic leadership they deserve, and you’ll keep top talent on board.